It was 1991 or so when we walked out of the morning service of the charismatic church we called home, knowing that our relationship with this church and the organized church was over. For some time our growing understanding of God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus was increasingly in conflict with what we hearing and experiencing in the church experience.
Before going on, I should clarify that for us, teaching is an important and indispensable part of any church experience. That should go without saying but with so many conflicting opinions coming out from under the banner of Christianity, attitudes have developed that what is taught really does not matter as long as we all call upon the name of Jesus as our Saviour. Yet ultimately doctrine has to do with knowing the One we call Saviour. Jehovah’s Witnesses, to use the extreme, call upon Jesus as their Saviour too, but according to their teaching, He bears little resemblance to the One we call upon. When talking about the qualifications of those overseeing the church, Paul wrote to Titus:
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Titus 1:9
Of course, the reality is that we, as the church, are never going to be completely in agreement concerning what we understand to be the truth of Christianity, yet even in this Paul expected that we would press on towards that goal. Again he wrote:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph 4:11-14 ESV)
A lot has transpired since those days some twenty-two years ago. We have never regretted following the only path that seemed open to us, even though at times – especially in the early years – it was often a lonely journey. The journey itself might be a story to be told someday but today’s story is about the visit I made to an organized church this morning, why I chose to attend and what I found.
As I have begun writing this, I have recalled a couple of times a few years ago when we did attend a church to hear a particular speaker. As well, we did attend a church for a couple of months because we had heard that the teaching there was consistent with what we had been learning up to that point. We did not last long as the organizational structure of the church still seemed to be working against the Truth they were proclaiming. Other than that, I do not recall attending any other churches.
For the most part we have fellowshipped with small groups over the years with an emphasis on the essentials of the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ. The focus has always been “relation based on Truth” – relational with our God and Saviour and relational with each other with the broad view of sharing the fruits of that fellowship with the needy in the world looking for a Saviour.
Most recently we had spent three or four years with a precious group going through the basics of the Gospel of Grace and watching the positive effect it was having on those who had been searching. But for a number of reasons the time came, for me at least, to move on.
Last summer I became aware of church in a nearby town that devoted much of its resources to helping the needy and lonely of the city through meal programs, financial assistance and so on. I visited that venue a number of times and the heart of this church towards the folks of the city core reminded me of the Spirit of what James wrote:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas 1:27 ESV)
So having “moved on” from our last fellowship, I am quite honestly wondering what to do next. I have been entertaining the idea of getting involved with an organized church once again, mostly for the fellowship. But quite frankly I am not sure I can do the organized church thing again. So this morning’s visit was a bit like sticking my toe in the water to feel the temperature. In any case, because it is not located in our city, it would not be a place we would visit weekly, so it seemed like a safe experiment.
So off I went alone this morning (Joy is nursing a cold) and it was an interesting experience. First off, when I got there, it seemed that everyone was eager to make me feel welcome and show me around. They do a neat thing in that coffee and water is made available before, during and after the service. The people there were of all ages, social status and so on. The only uniformity I noticed among the attendees was their evident love for Jesus and their benevolence towards one another. The songs were a mixture of old and new. Then there was the sermon which deserves its own paragraph, given my emphasis on the importance of what is taught.
While I will not get into the specifics, I thought the sermon was that mixture of truth and error that seems to plague almost all organized church teaching. That comment does not for one minute disparage the heart of the pastor who preached, as his love for the flock entrusted to him is abundantly evident. His comments also reflected a healthy attitude that his flock is part of THE flock whose Shepherd is Christ, who assured us many years ago that HE would build His church.
All in all it was a great experience for me and I hope to attend again in a month or so with Joy. However, it still leaves me with the dilemma that I may have to face again as I try out the organized church scene in our area. The dilemma is this: how do we deal with major doctrinal differences while at the same time having a heart to be with those who simply are our brothers and sisters in Christ. In part, the current house church phenomena came about as the answer to this dilemma but for two reasons that seem obvious to me, have failed. First, recognizing the natural as opposed to the Spiritual origins of the organized church, there seemed to be the impression that the answer was to simply model the church on what was perceived to be the model of a “phantom” New Testament church. I use the word phantom because the New Testament church experience was driven by the changed hearts of people born anew into the Kingdom within their culture and not the other way around. In other words, the New Testament church was a result not a cause. Secondly, not recognizing that the problem of the organized church was its natural origins because the Spiritual discipline in our life of Union in Christ was neglected, the house church movement for the most part has itself neglected this Spiritual discipline.
We are for every brother and sister, every church, every pastor and every work that looks to Jesus Christ as the answer. Where we will end up probably is wherever God gives us the opportunity to share and learn about what it means to live our lives in Union with Christ.